Friday, April 20, 2012

What an '80s Song Reminded Me About Autism

The day was warm and dusty, due to the kids kicking up dirt in my brother and his wife's new backyard. My kids, their cousins, and their cousin's cousins all were playing while the rest of us sat in the shade eating dogs and burgers and talking.

I should rephrase -- most of the kids were playing. One was sleeping. The youngest was eating dirt. And Ethan was on the outskirts.

There are days when Ethan joins in the play, and there are days when for whatever reason he's just not interested. When I'm being the super-understanding mom that I should be, this is okay. But some days, when I look out and see five kids ages 2 to 7 interacting, laughing, chasing, digging, swinging...I can't help but feel a little sad.

I know, I know, I know, that I am feeling sad more for me than for him. It's not as if Ethan is at a stage yet where he wants to play with kids and interact but does it wrong and then feels crushed and lonely. He has never told me, "I have no friends." He's not quite sure what having a friend even means yet. He was perfectly content tracing the paths of the hose; sifting through dirt; swinging solo. There would be brief moments when he'd follow the other kids, or roar like a monster in the play house to scare them. But overall he just wanted to be by himself.

I watched my sister-in-law's brother, who also has autism. He spent his time indoors shuffling through old VCR tapes, typing on the computer, and begging to play with someone's cell phone. Every interaction had to do with things rather than the person. I kept telling myself that I had to remember, I had to remember, that people with autism have brains that work differently. And I had to remember that I was sad because I was perceiving the situation through my own lens, through my own feelings and expectations.

But still my "neuro-typical" mind could only think that an essential part of the human experience is relationship with people. And even if they didn't mind, it bothered me to think that the people I know are missing out on something vitally important.

In the car, I was glum and the kids were covered with dirt and again, both completely happy. We turned on XM radio to the 80s station. A countdown of top songs from the spring of 1989 was on. I turned it up. That spring I was 14 and in 9th grade. I was sure I'd know all of the songs.

The first song came on. Apparently, God has a sense of humor. It was the same song, the same obscure song I hadn't thought about in 20 years until the last time I'd thought of it, about a year before. It's called "Room to Move," and the refrain goes something like:

Room to move
That's all I need
That's all I ask for
Room to breathe

The last time I'd thought of "Room to Move," it had hit me that often God could be the one singing those words, to each of us. How many times does He want to do something, to breathe into each one of us, but we shut him out, lock him in a box, choke up the possibilities with our unbelief?

This time, though, I listened more closely to the lyrics.

I know it seems like I'm a million miles away
Sometimes you feel like you don't even know me
But in this world there's pressures building every day
I need time to work things out oh baby
It's not that I don't love you, oh no
It's just that I've got to have
Room to move
That's all I need, that's all I ask for
Room to breathe

And another verse says:

You lose your mind, if you don't take time
Cross that line and your mind explodes
Push too hard and your feelings starve
Emotions overload

Room to move
That's all I need
That's all I ask for
Room to breathe...

I could see it so clearly. I knew it, but I needed this shallow little bubble gum song from years ago to remind me yet again.

It's not that people with autism don't care. Sometimes they care too much. Or they care about different things. Sometimes they feel so many things at once they don't know what to do with all of those feelings. That's why they flap their hands. That's why they greet people by asking their address or the make of their car. That's why they need room to walk along the edge of the yard when everyone else is in the middle.

We have to give them that space sometimes. We can't force them into relationships. It's not fair and it's not respecting who they are.

It's one thing for your child to be heartbroken and not know how to play with others. Sometimes they are missing out and know they are missing out.

It's different for your child to be enjoying the day, being himself, and to run smack dab against the pressure of someone else's expectations.

God, I need to be able to see the difference. And sometimes I need a reminder, like the one from a long-forgotten 80s group called Animotion, featured here, for your listening enjoyment:

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